Kim Sengupta: A diplomat without diplomacy - but he made up for it in cunning

A senior Serbian official was left spluttering by what he considered Mr Holbrooke's high-handed behaviour

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A few weeks after the "liberation" of Kosovo, a group of foreign journalists opened a bar in Pristina which they decided to call "Tricky Dicky's", in homage to Richard Holbrooke, who had bestrode Balkans diplomacy with such prominence.

A little later Mr Holbrooke, on a visit to the Kosovan capital, paid a visit to the club and held forth with remarkable candour about the state of affairs. The Kosovo Liberation Army contained some pretty unsavoury elements, he declared – a surprising admission at time when the KLA was being portrayed by Washington and London as pure-hearted freedom fighters battling Serbian oppression.

Mr Holbrooke had always stressed that he had an empathy with journalists. Others experienced the less amiable side of the "Bulldozer". A senior Serbian official in Belgrade was left spluttering with indignation by what he considered to be Mr Holbrooke's high-handed behaviour – "arrogance and bullying... ultimatums no one can meet", the official complained.

Similarly an Afghan minister was shocked when he witnessed Mr Holbrooke banging the table as he demanded that Hamid Karzai agreed to a second round run-off in the national elections which had been tainted by fraud. The humiliating dressing down, the minister believes, was one of the catalysts in fuelling the Afghan president's feeling of resentment towards the West.

But it was not just the Afghans who were being affected by "Tricky Dicky" in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal's groan in the Rolling Stone article – "Oh no, not another e-mail from Holbrooke, I don't even want to open it" – was a feeling shared by many of the US commander's colleagues.

The Afghan capital, at that time, had become a three-ringed circus with open rivalry between Mr Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan and General McChrystal.

The last glimpse some of us had of Mr Holbrooke was at the garden of the Gadamack Lodge Hotel in Kabul one evening in the autumn where he was ensconced at a corner table supposedly having a discreet meeting with an embassy colleague. But he was surrounded by his personal bodyguards with their guns drawn. "Was this not a bit of a giveaway?" one of them was asked. "Yep," he replied, "but that's what the man wants, he's alpha one and he don't care who knows that."

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